Bilbao or San Sebastian For Your Next Trip?

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An inside guide to the all important question: Bilbao or San Sebastian for your next trip?

Cover image showing a montage from Bilbao and San Sebastian in the Basque Country Spain

Bilbao vs San Sebastian

San Sebastián and Bilbao, while only a short distance apart, present decidedly distinct experiences.

I’m just back from a trip to both, having visited both over the years as a professional travel writer, fun loving traveller and sleep-deprived mother of young children.

And both have been fantastic hosts each time I’ve been.

San Sebastián, with its golden beaches and culinary prowess, mixes olde worlde coastal charm with a pulse of Basque energy. Meanwhile, Bilbao, once an industrial powerhouse, has reinvented itself as a cultural hub, crowned by the iconic Guggenheim Museum.

They’re both symbolic of the Basque Country in different ways and both deserve a visit. Both work well as city breaks or road trips, and an even more magnificent way to explore is along the coast. You can rent a boat and really see the best of the Basque country.

However, if you do have to decide between Bilbao and San Sebastian, let me guide you on your way.

Red Bilbao Letters on hillside Spain

Bilbao: The Bustling City with World-Class Art

We begin our exploration in Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country and a place where industrial heritage mixes with modern dynamism.

Bilbao is worth visiting in itself for its cosmopolitan vibe and great museums, but as you will see, it is also a great base for exploring more of the Basque Country.

Let’s take a look at its main attractions.

Abigail King outside Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Spain

The Iconic Guggenheim Museum

Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum, is a sight to behold. Its undulating titanium curves reflect the sunlight, creating an ever-changing spectacle that is even better than it looks in the photos.

But the museum is more than just a pretty face. Inside, it houses a world-class collection of modern and contemporary art, including works by Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Louise Bourgeois.

The museum’s temporary exhibitions are equally impressive, often featuring cutting-edge installations and thought-provoking displays.

You could easily spend a whole day exploring the Guggenheim’s galleries but don’t forget to take a break in the museum’s café, which offers stunning views of the Nervión River and the city skyline.

A visit to the museum is easily accessible from Bilbao Airport, a mere 20-minute drive or a convenient metro ride away.

Casco Viejo: Bilbao’s Charming Old Town

While the Guggenheim may be Bilbao’s most famous landmark, the city’s heart lies in its charming old town, Casco Viejo. A labyrinth of narrow streets lined with the best pintxos bars and shops, Casco Viejo is a feast for the senses.

Here, you can sample the Basque Country’s famous pintxos, bite-sized culinary creations that are as delicious as they are diverse. Be sure to try the gildas, a classic pintxo consisting of an olive, an anchovy, and a pickled chilli pepper.

After indulging in a few pintxos, stroll through the Mercado de la Ribera, one of Europe’s largest indoor markets, where you can find everything from fresh produce to local handicrafts.

As you wander through Casco Viejo, you’ll encounter several historic churches, including the Santiago Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece that dates back to the 14th century.

Visiting in the warmer months? Don’t miss our guide to spending the summer in Spain.

Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The Guggenheim isn’t the only museum in town. Art aficionados shouldn’t miss the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, home to an extensive collection of Spanish and European art, spanning from the 12th to the 20th century.

From El Greco and Goya to Van Dyck and Bacon, the museum’s galleries offer a captivating journey through art history.

Take your time to appreciate the intricate details of the paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts on display.

Zubizuri Bridge and Nervión River

A stroll along the Nervión River reveals Bilbao’s modern face, with sleek architecture and public art installations dotting the waterfront.

The Zubizuri Bridge, a pedestrian footbridge designed by Santiago Calatrava, is a graceful arc of white steel and glass that has become a symbol of the city.

Take a boat ride along the river for a different perspective of Bilbao’s cityscape, or simply relax on one of the riverside terraces and soak up the atmosphere.

Day Trip to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

If you’re craving a taste of Spain’s Northern Coast, a road trip from Bilbao to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a good option. This small island, crowned by a hermitage and connected to the mainland by a winding stone bridge, is a sight to behold.

As you ascend the 241 steps to the top, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the Bay of Biscay. And legend has it that ringing the chapel bell three times brings good luck.

Sand art on Playa Concha San Sebastian Basque Country Spain

San Sebastian: Coastal Charm and Culinary Delights

Now, let’s turn our attention to San Sebastian, a truly beautiful city, earning its reputation as a haven for foodies and beach lovers alike. It’s a smaller town compared to Bilbao but it has many different things to offer.

La Concha Beach and Coastal Beauty

La Concha Beach is a hallmark of the city of San Sebastian. This crescent-shaped stretch of golden sand hugs the Bay of Biscay and when the sun shines just right, the water looks turquoise. It’s backed by an elegant promenade that traces its curve, inviting street artists and locals from dawn til dusk.

The beach invites you to indulge in various activities, from swimming and sunbathing to kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.

I spent many an afternoon strolling along the promenade, watching the sailboats glide across the bay and feeling the gentle sea breeze on my face. And baby Lab absolutely loved this very family friendly beach.

Parte Vieja: San Sebastian’s Old Town

Beyond the beach, head into San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja, the Old Town, a maze of narrow streets teeming with pintxos bars. Each bar is a culinary stage, showcasing an array of miniature gastronomic masterpieces.

Don’t miss the chance to try the local favourites, such as the txangurro a la donostiarra (stuffed spider crab) or the gilda (a skewer of olives, anchovies, and peppers).

Amidst the culinary delights, you’ll also find historic churches like the Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro and charming plazas like the Plaza de la Constitución.

Michelin-Starred Dining Scene

San Sebastian is a culinary paradise, with the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. A veritable constellation of culinary stars awaits, including Arzak, Mugaritz, and Martin Berasategui, each offering an unforgettable dining experience.

Indulge in a tasting menu at Kokotxa, a one-Michelin-star establishment that showcases the best of Basque cuisine with a modern twist or dine at Akellare for a fantastic view of the sea.

Cultural Attractions and Events

San Sebastian’s cultural calendar is equally rich, with events like the International Film Festival and the Jazz Festival drawing crowds from around the world.

The San Telmo Museum, housed in a 16th-century Dominican convent, offers a fascinating glimpse into Basque history and culture. Its collection includes archaeological artefacts, traditional costumes, and works by local artists.

I found myself particularly drawn to the museum’s ethnographic exhibits, which shed light on the customs and traditions of the Basque people.

Woman in silhouette standing in the foyer of the Balenciaga Museum near San Sebastian Spain
Take a day trip to the Balenciaga Museum

Day Trips and Nearby Towns

If you have time to venture beyond San Sebastian, several charming towns and villages await.

Hondarribia, a colourful fishing village with a well-preserved medieval centre, is a great place to wander and soak up the atmosphere.

Getaria, the birthplace of the renowned fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, is another worthy destination, home to a museum dedicated to his life and work.

And just across the French border, St Jean de Luz beckons with its picturesque harbour and Belle Epoque architecture.

For wine enthusiasts, the Txakoli wine region is the best place to spend the day. This local white wine, with its slightly sparkling character and refreshing acidity, is the perfect accompaniment to the region’s delicious cuisine. You can explore the vineyards, meet the winemakers, and sample their creations.

Montage of images from San Sebastian and Bilbao

Bilbao and San Sebastian Side by Side

With their distinct personalities and major attractions, Bilbao and San Sebastian each offer a unique experience. Let’s compare and contrast these two Basque cities to help you decide which one aligns best with your travel desires.

Size and Atmosphere

Bilbao is a bigger city and buzzes with metropolitan energy. Its cityscape is a dynamic blend of old and new, with modern architectural marvels like the world-famous Guggenheim Museum juxtaposed against the historic charm of the Casco Viejo.

The city’s streets hum with activity, from the shoppers browsing the boutiques on Gran Vía to the foodies hopping from one pintxos bar to the next.

The smaller city of San Sebastian, on the other hand, exudes a more laid-back vibe. Its picturesque setting on the Bay of Biscay creates a relaxed atmosphere that’s perfect for unwinding.

While the Parte Vieja bustles with activity, especially during the pintxos crawl, there’s an underlying sense of tranquillity that permeates the city.

Whether you’re lounging on La Concha Beach or sipping txakoli in a seaside cafe, San Sebastian invites you to slow down and savour the moment.

Pimientos de Padron platter Basque Country Spain

Accommodation and Dining

Both cities offer a wide range of accommodations, from luxury hotels to charming guesthouses.

In Bilbao, the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao, with its perfect location opposite the Guggenheim Museum, is a top choice for art aficionados.

For a more intimate experience, consider the Hotel Miró, a boutique hotel housed in a 19th-century building in the heart of the Casco Viejo.

In San Sebastian, the Hotel Maria Cristina, a Belle Epoque landmark with a central location, which has hosted royalty and celebrities, epitomises elegance and grandeur.

If you’re seeking a unique experience, one of the best ways to experience it is to stay at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, which boasts stunning views of La Concha Bay.

When it comes to dining, both cities excel, but in different ways. Bilbao’s culinary scene is diverse, with options ranging from traditional Basque fare to international cuisine.

The city’s Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao and Mina, showcase the best of Basque gastronomy with innovative flair.

San Sebastian, however, is in a league of its own. With its unparalleled concentration of Michelin stars, it’s a sure bet for food lovers.

From the avant-garde creations at Arzak to the seafood-focused delights at Elkano, San Sebastian’s best restaurants offer a culinary adventure that’s sure to tantalise your taste buds.

Man approaching Artxanda Funicular in Bilbao Spain

Ease of Access and Transportation

Both Bilbao and San Sebastian are well-connected, with airports and train stations that offer easy access from major cities in Spain and beyond.

Bilbao Airport is a major international hub, while San Sebastian Airport caters mainly to domestic flights.

If you’re travelling by train, both cities have stations that are served by high-speed and regional services.

Within the cities, public transportation is efficient and reliable.

In Bilabao, the main train station is well connected to the rest of the city and buses depart several times a day from Bilbao bus station to other destinations.

Plus, Bilbao’s metro system, designed by Norman Foster, is a marvel of modern engineering, making it easy to find a metro station in all key points of the city.

San Sebastian’s bus network covers all corners of the city. If you plan to explore the surrounding areas, getting a rental car is a great option. However, keep in mind that parking in the city centre of each town can be challenging and expensive.

If you’re short on travel time and want to experience both cities, the good news is that you can easily base yourself on one and take day trips to the other.

Bilbao and San Sebastian are only about an hour’s drive apart, making it convenient to explore both destinations.

However, if you prefer a more leisurely pace, I recommend spending a few days in each city to fully immerse yourself in their unique charms.

Planning on hiring a car? Make the most of your own wheels with a road trip in Asturias or this self-drive Galicia itinerary. See also our guide to the best road trips in Spain.

Budget Considerations

While both Bilbao and San Sebastian offer experiences for various budgets, San Sebastian generally leans towards the pricier side, especially when it comes to dining and accommodation. The abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotels can quickly add up.

Bilbao, on the other hand, presents a wider range of options, with plenty of mid-range hotels and affordable pintxos bars that won’t break the bank.

However, both cities offer free activities, such as exploring their historic centres and enjoying the natural beauty of their surroundings, making them accessible to budget-conscious travellers and as well as lovers of luxury.

Richard Serra works Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Spain

So, Where Does Your Next Trip Take You?

Bilbao, with its world-class art scene, architectural marvels like the Guggenheim, and vibrant energy, is the best option for those seeking a cosmopolitan escape.

San Sebastian, on the other hand, with its beautiful beaches, Michelin-starred local cuisine, and relaxed atmosphere, is the perfect place for those who crave a slower pace and culinary indulgence.

If you’re a culture vulture with a penchant for modern art, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum and Fine Arts Museum is the clear winner.

For foodies, San Sebastian’s pintxos bars and excellent restaurants offer a gastronomic adventure unlike any other. And if you simply want to unwind and soak up the sun, Playa de la Concha in San Sebastian is your best bet.

Both cities have won European best destination awards and offer plenty of things to do and see, from exploring historic old towns to venturing into the surrounding countryside.

Whether you choose the urban excitement of Bilbao or the coastal charm of San Sebastian, you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience in the Spanish Basque Country.

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